The release of Sara Colangelo’s post-9/11 drama Worth onto Netflix seems well-timed, giving the 20th anniversary of the New York and Washington terror attacks is fast approaching. Unfortunately, while it is a well-intentioned and deeply respectful film, it does not seem quite as interesting a story as to need a feature adaptation.
In the aftermath of the attack, lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) volunteers to run the task of offering compensation payouts to the families of 9/11 victims. Working with partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), he strikes upon a formula to calculate the monetary value of each payment based on income, age, number of dependants, and other factors. Not everybody is happy, however, particularly campaigner Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci).
It is easy to rattle off Worth‘s considerable merits. For one thing it is handsomely staged and shot, with a bold Cinemascope composition that surrounds its characters with images of the deceased and reflects the burden of large decisions on small individuals. It successfully condenses two years of legal process in a manner that is easily comprehended. Thanks to writer Max Borenstein – working from Feinberg’s own memoir – there is smart dialogue and beautiful moments of character. The cast are also well selected and performed, with particularly good work from Tucci, Ryan, Keaton, and co-star Shunori Ramanthan.
It feels like a prestige picture: independently produced, showcased at Sundance, then picked up for worldwide release on Netflix. Everything is done well, and there are no shortfalls in its execution. So why, then, does Worth feel so underwhelming?
There is a key difference between a worthy story (honestly no pun intended) and an interesting one. Worth is produced with enormous respect for the thousands of Americans killed during the 9/11 attacks, and for their grieving families. It carefully locks off its story focus – compensating those families – and avoids discussion or comparisons with the subsequent ‘war on terror’. Then it tells that story from the point of view of a government bureaucrat who did not, as far as the film makes out, lose anybody.
Worth does include grieving families and survivors in its narrative. A key subplot follows a widow and single mother who simply wants her husband to be properly remembered. One could base an entire 9/11 film around her, or people like her, or people like the gay man whose dead partner’s estranged parents refuse his claim to be compensated. This is not their story, however: they exist so that protagonist Kenneth Feinberg can reach his own epiphany over how one measures the value of a life. It should be their story. They are where the drama is. They own the loss, the grief, and the emotional core of the tragedy. Telling the story of how victims were compensated is an important and valuable story, but Worth makes the catastrophic mistake of choosing the people doing the compensating as its viewpoint rather than the ones being compensated.
It is the difference between a good movie and a great one.